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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Two Sides to Every Story: The Wicked Lady is Innocent & Giveaway

Today I have the wonderful opportunity to welcome Deborah Swift, author of the upcoming Lady of the Highway, book 3 of her Highway Series, to The Maiden's Court with an awesome contribution to the Two Sides to Every Story series.  Swift treats us to the story behind the highwaywoman legend of Katherine Fanshawe.  I hope you will enjoy it!

The Wicked Lady is Innocent

The Legend of The Wicked Lady, Lady Katherine Fanshawe vs. The Real Life of Lady Katherine Fanshawe.
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas…’

Alfred Noyes, The Highwayman
As far as I know, there has only ever been one female highwayman, and she was known as The Wicked Lady.  She has long been a legend in Hertfordshire, England, but was made a sensation by the 1945 film The Wicked Lady. The film starred Margaret Lockwood in the title role as a nobleman's wife who secretly becomes a highwayman to relieve her life of boredom. The mystery of why she would take such an extreme action was the talk of its day –and the film had one of the biggest audiences ever for a film of its period, $18.4 million – a staggering number. I can remember my mother talking about it as one of her favorite films.

The Wicked Lady - 1945
It was such a hit that the film was re-made in 1983 and starred Faye Dunaway in the lead role, but that version was a disaster and earned Faye Dunaway an award for the Worst Actress. The film itself was based on a book by Magdalen King Hall, The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton, but the novel was only loosely based on the real Katherine’s life. I have a copy and it is exciting reading, though rather long-winded in the telling by today’s standards.

The Popular Legend of the Wicked Lady

A beautiful lady of the manor, Lady Katherine Fanshawe, is bored with her humdrum life, and begins riding out secretly, dressed in men’s attire, as a highwaywoman. Her husband, meanwhile, is completely unaware of her perilous night-time exploits, because she creeps out from Markyate Cell (the Manor house) through a secret passageway. Katherine eventually meets another dashing gentleman of the road, a handsome farmer called Ralph Chaplin, and falls in love, but their affair must remain hidden. The pair perform a series of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ type robberies, until eventually Ralph is caught during a failed hold-up, and subsequently hanged on Finchley Common. Mad with grief at his death, the ‘wicked lady’ terrorizes the villagers in the area, burning down houses, and shooting the local constable on his doorstep.

The ‘wicked’ Lady Katherine is eventually caught when a trap is set for her, and a wagon that she holds up on the highway contains a group of armed men. She is shot, and fatally wounded. She rides back to Markyate Cell, but dies of her injuries before reaching the front door.

Many ghostly sightings have added to the legend. Her ghost has been seen riding her horse at full gallop on dark nights, and in 1840 when part of the manor was destroyed by fire, the blaze was blamed on Lady Katherine.  Whilst helping to put out the fire several locals said that they felt an eerie presence and feared they were being spied on by her unquiet ghost.

Lady Katherine Fanshawe is Innocent – The Research

Despite the romance of the legend, there is actually nothing of substance to link the real Lady Katherine Fanshawe with any sort of highway robbery, although it is likely that there was robbery and plunder on the roads at this period because it was a period of civil unrest. Many Royalists had been uprooted from their estates by the English Civil Wars, and in order to survive, took to the road and committed crimes that could have been attributed to her. The events of the English Civil War caused confusion and massive social unrest, and formed a plausible background for disenfranchised aristocrats.

Lady Katherine Fanshawe
Investigation of Anne Fanshawe’s diary, written at the time, has little of note to say on Katherine, her relation by marriage, and certainly nothing pertaining to robbery on the highway.

And nowhere in the real historical records is Katherine’s lover, Ralph Chaplin, traceable, although he always features in the retelling of the legend as the person who persuaded her to robbery in the first place.

Markyate Cell certainly existed though. It was called a ‘cell’ because the original site was a hermitage, which housed the nun Christina of Markyate, and eventually became a priory. The priory did not fare well during the Dissolution and was demolished in 1537, and the much more elaborate Markyate Manor was built on its footprint, although it is still sometimes known as Markyate Cell - the cell being the original hermitage. George Ferrers retained the name ‘Cell’ when he bought the land in 1548. The Ferrers family controlled this land when Markyate Manor was supposedly the home of Katherine Ferrers, the Wicked Lady.

Markyate Manor - Photo Credit
Born 4th May 1634, Katherine was the daughter of Knighton Ferrers of Bayfordbury, and his wife Katherine Walter. After the death of her husband, George Ferrers, Katherine’s mother re-married Sir Simon Fanshawe, a neighboring landowner. When her mother died, Markyate Manor was soon in the iron control of Katherine’s step-father. Worse, at only twelve years old, Katherine was forced into an arranged marriage with his nephew, Thomas Fanshawe, so that The Fanshawes could retain control of the estate, thus Katherine Ferrers became Katherine Fanshawe.

However – although the house belonged to her husband, it has never been proved that Katherine Fanshawe actually lived at Markyate Manor during the time she was supposed to have been a highwaywoman, and evidence shows the manor was sold well before her death. After Cromwell came to power, Markyate Manor was sold by her husband to ‘three Londoners’ in 1655.

Nomansland Common, where she was thought to hold up the highway, is a long way from Markyate Manor – half a day’s ride, surely impractical for hit and run robberies?

Records show that Katherine Fanshawe died aged 26, and was not recorded as having any children, which was highly unusual for a married woman her age in those times, although can be explained by the war. Her husband and stepfather actually spent much of the war exiled in France or Ireland.

Katherine was buried not in the Fanshawe family vault, as might be expected, but at St Mary’s Church, Ware, so perhaps the real Lady Katherine Fanshawe was residing close to there when she died. So with Katherine’s probably undramatic death, the Ferrers line died out.

John Barber, on his excellent website on Lady Katherine, poses the idea that her life may have been confused with the story of ‘Maude of Allinghame’ (1833), a Victorian ballad that tells the story of a noblewoman who robs the Mayor of Redbourne. She too has an illicit affair, and she too dies on the steps of her manor house, Allingham Hall. Coincidentally Katherine’s mother was related to a family called Allinghame.

This seems to be the most likely explanation, although parts of Katherine’s legend are undoubtedly true. She was forced to marry tragically early; her stepfather did squander her fortune; the real Markyate Manor does have a secret passage, because in the 1820’s builders discovered a secret passageway at Markyate Manor.  It ran from the kitchen to a chamber above, and was most likely a priest hole – as both the Ferrers and the Fanshawes were closet Catholics.  Also possible as a source of the legend is Wicked Lord Ferrers, who was hanged at Tyburn in 1760 for the murder of his servant. His name and his story could easily have been grafted on to Katherine’s history.

So, was Katherine a wicked lady? Probably not. But the legend is still irresistible, and my three books for young adults have made full use of the known history, along with selected elements of the legend.

Deborah Swift is the author of three previous historical novels for adults, The Lady’s Slipper, The Gilded Lily, and A Divided Inheritance, all published by Macmillan/St Martin’s Press, as well as the Highway Trilogy for teens (and anyone young at heart!) Shadow on the Highway and Spirit of the Highway are available now.  The third novel in the Highway Trilogy, Lady of the Highway is out soon. Her first novel was shortlisted for the Impress prize for new novelists.

She lives on the edge of the beautiful and literary English Lake District – a place made famous by the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge. 

You can find Deborah on the following social media sites: WEBSITE | BLOG | FACEBOOK | TWITTER | GOODREADS | GOOGLE+ |PINTEREST

Buy the Books: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | RJ Julia

Book Blurb:

England 1652
Seventeen-year-old Lady Katherine Fanshawe (Kate) has lost everything in the civil war that has torn England apart. Determined to build a community of friends, she invites Owen Whistler and the radical Diggers sect to make their home in her manor house.

When her stepfather unexpectedly returns, he evicts the Diggers with no pay, despite their months of labour on his land. Wilful, and determined to regain Owen’s trust, Kate has to repay her friends the only way she can – by turning to secret highway robbery.

But Kate is not the only one riding the highway at night, and her rival for the road is intent on bloodshed and murder. When he unleashes a reign of terror, Kate gets the blame. Will she be able to clear her name, and save the one person she loves from his lust for revenge?


I have an excellent giveaway that is open internationally. It is for a signed Paperback Copy of Shadow on the Highway and an Ebook Copy of Spirit on the Highway, both books so far published in Swift's Highway series. Entries thru Rafflecopter below. Open thru May 31st!

a Rafflecopter giveaway


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